Idols in the East

Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100–1450

Suzanne Conklin Akbari
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 336
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7v85c
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  • Book Info
    Idols in the East
    Book Description:

    Representations of Muslims have never been more common in the Western imagination than they are today. Building on Orientalist stereotypes constructed over centuries, the figure of the wily Arab has given rise, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, to the "Islamist" terrorist. In Idols in the East, Suzanne Conklin Akbari explores the premodern background of some of the Orientalist types still pervasive in present-day depictions of Muslims-the irascible and irrational Arab, the religiously deviant Islamist-and about how these stereotypes developed over time.

    Idols in the East contributes to the recent surge of interest in European encounters with Islam and the Orient in the premodern world. Focusing on the medieval period, Akbari examines a broad range of texts including encyclopedias, maps, medical and astronomical treatises, chansons de geste, romances, and allegories to paint an unusually diverse portrait of medieval culture. Among the texts she considers are The Book of John Mandeville, The Song of Roland, Parzival, and Dante's Divine Comedy. From them she reveals how medieval writers and readers understood and explained the differences they saw between themselves and the Muslim other.

    Looking forward, Akbari also comes to terms with how these medieval conceptions fit with modern discussions of Orientalism, thus providing an important theoretical link to postcolonial and postimperial scholarship on later periods. Far reaching in its implications and balanced in its judgments, Idols in the East will be of great interest to not only scholars and students of the Middle Ages but also anyone interested in the roots of Orientalism and its tangled relationship to modern racism and anti-Semitism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6498-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: Medieval Orientalism?
    (pp. 1-19)

    Representations of Muslims have never been more common in the Western imagination than they are now. Building on Orientalist stereotypes constructed over centuries, the figure of the wily Arab has given rise, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, to the “Islamic” terrorist. The feared and hated “other” is understood as being different from “us” not only in religious terms but also in ethnic, even racial terms: difference of faith and diversity of skin color appear as two sides of a single coin, each aspect reinforcing the other. This book is about the premodern background of some of the Orientalist...

  6. Chapter 1 The Shape of the World
    (pp. 20-66)

    It is commonly believed, even today, that medieval people thought that the world was flat.¹ Nothing could be further from the truth. During the Middle Ages, writers endlessly discussed the shape of the orbus terrae or “sphere of the world,” partitioning it in many different ways. Occasionally they used the binary distinction between East and West, as in Fulcher of Chartres’ famous description of the Christian crusaders in Jerusalem: “Consider, I pray, and reflect how in our time God has transferred the West into the East. For we who were Occidentals have now been made Orientals.”² More frequently, however, medieval...

  7. Chapter 2 From Jerusalem to India
    (pp. 67-111)

    In the previous chapter, we examined views of the world that emphasize symmetry, balance, and the stability of a focal center—Jerusalem—which serves to anchor the world both in space (as the geographical center of many medieval maps) and in time (as the fulcrum of Christian salvation history). This might be described as a fundamentally centripetal view of the world, where the constituent parts revolve around a fixed center, drawing their own significance from their relationship to that focal point and consequently, over time, investing it with layer upon layer of accreted spiritual and symbolic weight. The centrifugal flow...

  8. Chapter 3 The Place of the Jews
    (pp. 112-154)

    Where is the place of the Jews? Although this is a difficult question with which to begin, it is crucial, for in defining the place of the Jews—not just geographically but also spiritually and epistemologically—medieval European Christians defined both themselves and the very notion of alterity. It is nothing new to suggest that Christian identity was, throughout the Middle Ages, modeled on conceptions of Jewish identity. As Daniel Boyarin has shown, the “hermeneutics of supersession” embedded in Pauline theology richly informed both the early writings of the Church Fathers and subsequent developments in Christian theology.¹ In a wide-ranging...

  9. Chapter 4 The Saracen Body
    (pp. 155-199)

    While modern constructions of Orientalism center on the idea of the “Arab” or the “Muslim,” focusing alternatively on ethnic and religious identities, medieval constructions conflated categories of ethnicity and religion within a single term that served as a marker of both: “Saracen.” This term identified its object as religiously different (not a follower of Christ, but of Muhammad), and ethnically or racially different (from Oriental regions). It is significant that the term “Saracen” is never used to identify Christian Arabs, showing that the term was understood as defining alterity in both dimensions; that is, in terms of both religion and...

  10. Chapter 5 Empty Idols and a False Prophet
    (pp. 200-247)

    It is generally assumed that, from twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, there were two fundamentally different ways that European Christians viewed Islam. On the one hand, a series of chansons de geste and romances showed Muslims as polytheistic idolaters; on the other Latin and vernacular biographies of Muhammad chronicled the Prophet’s life in detail, illustrating his career as trickster, deceiver, pseudo-prophet, and representative of the power of Antichrist. Modern readers have tended to distinguish sharply between these two modes of representation. In his influential study of Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, Richard Southern posited a metanarrative of...

  11. Chapter 6 The Form of Heaven
    (pp. 248-279)

    The Islamic paradise is far from dead in the Western imagination. Hardly a day goes by that a news article on Islamist terrorism does not allude to the “seventy-two virgins” that await the successful suicide bomber upon his arrival in the heaven of the Muslims. This formulation has long since been parodied, as in the well-known Doonesbury comic in which a female would-be suicide bomber is asked what on earth she will do with her seventy-two virgins once she gets them. She replies, “I’m saving them for my little brother.” Such examples in the current media—whether comic or all...

  12. Conclusion: A Glance at Early Modern Orientalism
    (pp. 280-288)

    The preceding chapters of Idols in the East have surveyed a wide range of texts—literary, historical, scientific, and cartographic. Instead of focusing narrowly on medieval representations of “Saracens,” I have tried to sketch out the wider contours of the discourse within which medieval Muslims were described. This has required me to explore two distinct vectors within premodern Orientalism: alterity defined in terms of religious difference, and alterity defined in terms of geographical diversity. Far more than in modern Orientalism—which, as suggested in the introduction, can be said to have its origins in the eighteenth-century colonial period—these two...

  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 289-314)
  14. Index
    (pp. 315-324)